Sports' Hierarchy of Needs: What Motivates Every Athlete

Jacob Kornhauser@@KornSportsCorrespondent IIIJuly 20, 2014

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 24: LeBron James of the Miami Heat attends the NBA Championship victory rally at the AmericanAirlines Arena on June 24, 2013 in Miami, Florida. The Miami Heat defeated the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals.  (Photo by Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images)
Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images

Psychologist Abraham Maslow is famous for describing humans' simple motivation system, which he called Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. It describes what motivates each person moving through life's ups and downs. 

Starting with physiological, Maslow hypothesized that everyone's basic need for food, water and shelter trumped everything else. Once that was met, people would move on to the need to feel safe. With the most basic of needs met, people would then try to achieve social goals, self-esteem goals and goals which help you come to a better sense of self. 

Similarly, athletes in all major sports have a hierarchy of needs. While the needs differ from Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the process undergone by each athlete is very similar in terms of motivation. It's also similar in the way that no single need can be fulfilled without one ahead of it being fulfilled first. Branching off of Maslow's theory, here is "Sports' Hierarchy of Needs."

Basic Finances

Players dream of signing their first professional sports contract. It gives them more money in the time it takes them to sign a contract than they've probably made in the rest of their lives combined. With that money, they're able to take care of their family and at least begin to put together a life for themselves at an early age. 

In 2013 alone, the MLB draft's signing-bonus allotment was $202 million. That's a heck of a lot of money to shell out to a bunch of youngsters, but it ensures that promising players stay in the sport and attempt to move up in the ranks. 

Meanwhile in the NFL this season, the top six picks in the draft all received signing bonuses of at least $10.27 million and guaranteed salaries of at least $16.43 million. While most don't make that sort of money, it shows that basic financial security is what hooks these athletes and makes them want to achieve more.

Long story short, the financial security that a first contract or signing bonus provides is the first thing that motivates a professional athlete. In fact, the promise of that contract is what motivates collegiate athletes around the country.

2014 NFL Draft Signing Bonuses

PlayerSigning Bonus
DE Jadaveon Clowney$14.518 million
OT Greg RobinsonUndisclosed
QB Blake BortlesUndisclosed, $20.6 million guaranteed
WR Sammy Watkins$12.8 million
OLB Khalil Mack$11.9 million
OT Jake Matthews$10.27 million

Playing Time

Once players have their family and themselves taken care of with their first signing bonus and contract, it's time to get to work. Yes, there are still athletes who play for the love of the game, and that pushes them to try and get consistent playing time at the highest level of competition in the world. 

Jeff Moore of The Hardball Times eloquently explains how many players in minor league baseball will never advance to the major leagues. However, he also says how to spot players who are headed for the big leagues based on the context of their ages and accomplishments. 

For players to continue to play in the minor leagues when it seems the odds are stacked against them, they need motivation past the money they already received in the form of signing bonuses. That motivation comes in the form of playing time. All of these players in baseball and other sports want to be able to crack the starting lineup in a professional sports lineup. 

Being able to play their sport at the highest level of competition is a thrill few get to experience, and the ones who do spend their entire young lives working toward it. Still, once an athlete becomes a starter in their sport, there's still work to be done. They crack that starting lineup, and all of a sudden there's something else motivating their actions.

Establishing Themselves

As soon as athletes become starters in their respective sport, they're going to want people to know who they are. After a while, for most athletes, just being a starter isn't enough.

Obviously, everyone isn't talented enough to just tell themselves they want to become an established star and go out and do it. However, there are athletes who are talented enough to make a conscious effort to establish themselves.

Improving your profile as an athlete is the biggest thing you can do in order to improve your value, because at the end of the day, money is a huge part of what is motivating any working person, much less an athlete. Establishing yourself is the first step toward doing that, and it's incredibly hard to do. 

In baseball, there are 750 players in the major leagues at any given time. Let's say that an average of four players per team are "established" in the sport. That would come out to a grand total of 120 established players in the entire league or 16 percent. However, that's not even factoring in players in the minor leagues. Counting every minor and major league baseball circuit, there are 6,550 players. 

With 120 of those players established, about .02 percent of professional baseball players become established in their sports. These numbers should be similar for football and basketball if you think of all the college players who never even sign a professional contract. Basically, establishing yourself in a sport is incredibly difficult. 

Like Maslow's hierarchy of needs, sports' hierarchy of needs serves as a model. Since few even establish themselves, playing in order to be able to keep playing and keep earning a paycheck motivates plenty of athletes. However, for that less than one percent of players who do manage to establish themselves, a deeper motivation kicks in.

Big Contract

As soon as players establishes themselves in their sport, it's almost like they begin to realize just how good they are. They may have had a self-belief in the past, but their success speaks for itself, and now they want more from their sport. Like working people who feel they're doing an incredible job, an athlete now feels that it's time for a raise. 

With free agency, sometimes players hit their peak with a few years left on their rookie contract. Sometimes players hit their peak at exactly the right time, right as they're entering free agency. Whatever the case may be, once established athletes enter free agency, they know they're set to get a gigantic raise.

For example, the base salary for NFL draft picks does not compare to what they will later make in free agency. In the first three weeks of NFL free agency this season, teams spent a whopping $760.8 million. Clearly, the value for an athletes comes in their second contract. 

Athletes become established and knows they're in for a big pay day. For some athletes, getting that big pay day is all they need, and once they get it, they sort of back off. Especially true for athletes such as Chris Johnson in the past, we've seen guys take their foot off the gas after signing a megadeal. However, there are some athletes who search for more once they get that extreme financial security.


While they obviously fight for championships on a regular basis, it really seems to become more important to athletes once they get paid the big bucks.

Think about the notable struggle star Carmelo Anthony had this season while trying to decide where to play next season. He had to decide whether to leave money on the table and compete for a championship with the Chicago Bulls or take much more money with a much less talented New York Knicks team. 

For some athletes, if they had already gotten that big pay day, maybe they would've chosen the Bulls. No matter the case, most athletes will begin searching for championships after they know they've made more money than they ever thought they could in their sport.

This doesn't mean that everyone is willing to take big pay cut or a pay cut at all, but many seem to be more willing to make sacrifices in order to win championships. 

Searching for championships also becomes a motivation for aging players in all sports. If there is an aging veteran in a sport that hasn't reached the mountain top, he's going to want to have that experience before he decides to retire.

For a number of reasons, the search for championships can be a strong motivator for athletes across every sport. There is perhaps one thing that can motivate more effectively.

Leaving A Legacy

Athletes who reach this category, like human beings who reach self-actualization on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, are rare. Not many athletes on the planet get to be successful enough on and off the court to think about cementing their legacy, but there are a few in each sport during every generation. 

Part of leaving a legacy involves winning championships, but it also involves doing things on and off the field that define you as a person and player. We've seen Derek Jeter adding onto his legacy as he nears retirement. Even though he did most of his winning early on in his career, his career accolades are making sure his legacy speaks for itself. 

Breaking records and doing notable things outside of their sport is a way for athletes to leave a better legacy in the long run. Only a select few will even get this opportunity, but for the ones who do, this can be the strongest motivator of all. That's because they know they control their own fate, and if they play everything correctly, they can live as immortals in sports history.


Just like Maslow's hierarchy of needs, sports' hierarchy of needs isn't perfect. However, like Maslow's hierarchy, sports' hierarchy does help delineate people from one another. Few will ever reach the peak of Maslow's hierarchy, and few will reach the peak of sports' hierarchy. Most of us will muddle in the middle and try to win the small battles from day to day in order to stay afloat. 

Just like anything, though, there are exceptions. You may know someone who has been exceptionally successful in their lives, and maybe that person fulfills more needs on the hierarchy than most people. Athletes are the same way.

In essence, this is why we love sports so much. It is compelling drama at its finest, watching athletes as they begin their careers and seeing which ones fall off and which ones ultimately rise to the occasion.


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